2010 Division Preview: AFC West
For the Chargers, the 2010 goal is simple: Super Bowl or bust
Stopping the run, and protecting home turf, are keys to Broncos success
Both the Raiders and Chiefs feel they're moving in right direction
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A case could be made that this was football's weakest division the past three years. During that time three of the four teams failed to post a winning record -- in any season. The exception was the Chargers, who've won four consecutive division titles and five of the past six.
San Diego should hear footsteps this year, however. Oakland had its best offseason in eight years, trading for an established quarterback (Jason Campbell) and drafting for talent instead of speed; Kansas City added coordinators with multiple Super Bowl rings (Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel) as well as a potential game-changing safety in top draft pick Eric Berry; and Denver believes it's better after jettisoning established young playmakers (Brandon Marshall, Tony Scheffler) for the second year in a row for unknown potential (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Tim Tebow).
What the Chargers do best: Win in December.
The Chargers have won 18 in a row in the Christmas month, a streak that spans four years and two coaches. It's a good thing they've been stronger closers -- in the regular season -- because they've been slow starters under coach Norv Turner. The Chargers opened 1-3 and were 5-5 at another point in 2007 before winning six in a row to end the regular season. The next year they were 0-2 and 3-5 before finishing 8-8. And last season they opened 2-3 before winning 11 in a row.
Turner preached faster starts the past couple of years, but it didn't happen because of injuries and a belief among the players that they can flip the switch on demand. Why would they think anything else? San Diego was the only AFC West team in any of the past three seasons to post a winning record. Put another way: 2006 was the last time that Denver, Oakland or Kansas City finished above .500.
What the Chargers need to improve: Playoff performance.
San Diego's regular season success has not carried over to the playoffs. The Chargers have lost three of their past five playoff openers -- all at home. They were 12-4 in 2004 and lost to the visiting Jets in overtime. In 2006 they were 14-2 and lost to the visiting Patriots. And last season they were 13-3 and lost to the visiting Jets.
The Chargers could go 16-0 in the regular season and it won't mean anything unless they get to a Super Bowl. Division titles should bore them, particularly in an AFC West that might be the league's weakest division. It's truly Super Bowl of bust for them.
Which Charger needs to step up: Left tackle Brandyn Dombrowski.
The second-year pro is being asked to protect QB Philip Rivers' blindside because two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Marcus McNeill is locked in a contract dispute with the team and has yet to report. Dombrowski, who spent his first season on the practice squad, started eight games last season on the right side and performed well. But he has never played left tackle and had a couple of stumbles in the preseason.
Dombrowski (6-foot-5, 323 pounds) has excellent size and is considered a more physical run blocker than McNeill. But he will have to improve in pass protection. The good thing for the Chargers is that they don't face an elite pass rusher until Week 9, when they travel to Houston to meet the Texans and Mario Williams. That assumes that Arizona outside linebacker Joey Porter is unable to turn back the clock. San Diego hosts the Cardinals in Week 4.
Predicted record: 12-4.
The schedule couldn't be much easier on paper. The Chargers play four teams that went to the playoffs last season -- Arizona, Indianapolis, New England and Cincinnati. Combine that with a 20-4 divisional record over the past four years and San Diego should be able to ride out the absences of McNeill and wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who also has refused to report until he gets a fair-market deal. Not that any of this matters. The real test for the Chargers will come in the playoffs. Super Bowl or bust.
What the Broncos do best: Start fast.
In their first season under coach Josh McDaniels, the Broncos won their first six games, four of which were against teams that would go on to reach the playoffs: Cincinnati, Dallas, New England and San Diego. The key was their defense, which allowed only five touchdowns during the streak.
The problem was that Denver couldn't finish as strong. It lost eight of its final 10, in part because the defense surrendered 22 touchdowns in the defeats. By comparison, the Broncos scored only 12 touchdowns in those games. Some of it had to do with injuries, but opponents also caught up to a passing scheme that was largely horizontal. According to Stats Inc., Denver ranked 21st with only 1,751 air yards -- yards the ball traveled through the air before being caught. They were 12th with 2,074 yards after the catch.
What the Broncos need to improve: Protecting its home turf, then stop the run.
In one of the puzzling stats of 2009, the Broncos finished 3-0 in the division on the road but were 0-3 at home. Another area of concern is the run defense. Denver defenders likely had nightmares all offseason after Jamaal Charles ran for a Chiefs record 259 yards in the season finale. Overall the Broncos surrendered 17 rushes of 20 yards or longer, tying for fifth-most in the league, and finished 26th against the run, allowing an average of 128.7 yards a game.
Which Bronco needs to step up: Defensive tackle Jamal Williams.
The massive nose tackle, who was released by San Diego after missing the final 15 games last season with a torn triceps, was signed to shore up the run defense. Williams is almost immovable one-on-one, and his quickness allows him to split some double teams. Even at 34 he's a physical presence on the interior. The Broncos are likely to limit him to run downs to keep him fresh and healthy.
The 13-year veteran signed with Denver in large part to be reunited with line coach Wayne Nunnely, who tutored him for 11 years in San Diego. If the duo is as successful as it was in San Diego, the Broncos' run defense should take a significant jump up the rankings.
Predicted record: 9-7.
The schedule is rough. After opening with Jacksonville and Seattle, the Broncos face Indy, Tennessee, Baltimore, the Jets, Oakland and San Francisco the subsequent six weeks. That could take its toll on a team that has a lot of age on defense and question marks at wide receiver and running back, where injuries shut down their top two backs in the preseason.